Album review: Ayumi Hamasaki - Rock 'n' roll circus

Album review: Ayumi Hamasaki - Rock 'n' roll circus | Random J Pop
Robot face claims to be bringing the Rock 'n roll circus. But many of the singles we've heard so far could argue otherwise. And I'm not entirely sure what posing in a London telephone box and sexing it up in front of Westminster abbey in the album inlay has to do with Rock 'n' roll and circuses. But conceptual fail aside, Rock 'n' roll circus is Ayumi Hamasaki's 14th studio album.

She seems to really have taken on board that Next level was a little bit crap, and a blip in the discography (save for a hot single or two). Because she's back on form for the (don't call it a) Rock 'n' roll circus. And there's not a hint of deafening electro synths, auto-tune and Ayumi playing Gaga on this whole album!

The heart of this album most certainly lies in the more rock driven songs. And the album fittingly opens with "Microphone" - Rock 'n' roll circus' most aggressive song, and the one which lives up to the album title perfectly. The song is a great mix of rock, pop, goth and even classical. It's so overblown and dramatic that even if you don't like the song, you have to admire its audacity; and that despite the constant sweeping back and forth of genre's, there is a catchy hook at the heart of it all. Great song. "Count down" continues from where "Microphone" leaves off; slowing things down and easing the pedal on the theatrics. It acts as a nice continuation, but it doesn't hold together as well as "Microphone" does. The verses are great, but the chorus feels like it's lacking, and that the guitars are thrashing on just for the sake of it - to the point where Ayumi's vocals get a little lost amongst it. Harmonies arranged around the chorus would have helped Ayumi stand out more and sound as though she facing the power of the guitars head on, as opposed to whimpering in their wake. This song will probably rock live though, as it has a very let's all stand together sing out hearts out and sway feel about it. So I'm betting that when she performs it live it'll come together in a way the album version should have.

"Last links" is Rock 'n' roll circus' mellowest rock song, and what a damn beast of a song it is! Sounding like Kumi Koda's "You" with some extra BPM's, guitars, and a lick of the Red hot chilli peppers. Despite not being your typical Japanese ballad, it features strong ballad over tones because of the strings being arranged in such a Japanesey balladry way. It's a shame Robot face didn't release this instead of "You were..." or "Ballad" - as it's a much better song that she could have done a great video for. Fellow mellow(ish)"Red line -for T.A-" closes the album and is the complete opposite to the dark as hell opening. The song finishes with a solo acapella from Ayumi, which I found to be a little cringe worthy due to her vocals being as thin as paper. But I'm sure fans will find it charming.

Amongst the rock angst are your fun, pop filled tracks that'll have you shaking your arse in your room like nobody is watching. "Lady dynamite" is officially Ayumi's gay anthem. How can it not be after that video?! "Lady dynamite" is nothing special, and sounds like a good bit of cheese you'd hear in a club on a night out. But it's because of this that the song works. It is not trying to be anything it's not. It's just a fun song you can get a little crazy and buck wild too. "Sexy little things" sticks out like a sore thumb because there is no other song like it on the album, and sounds almost as though it is an off-cut from Next level. Electro pop isn't a style which really suits Ayumi, but "Sexy little things" just about manages to work because it's so catchy, and somewhat ties in with the album title due to the playfulness of the music. The album could have done without this song and been no better or worse for it though. "Sexy little things" is not a great song, but it's not terrible neither. "Sunrise ~Love is all~" features at the very tail end of the album. And whilst I found it to be a strange placing for the song initially, it fits rather nicely there. In fact, I think it should have finished off the album. The video was some bullshit. But the song is exactly what it sets out to be: a feel good anthem to pump your fist to.

"Don't look back" sits on its lonesome: halfway between being a ballad and featuring the angst of Rock 'n' roll circus' more rock driven songs. I could not stand when "Don't look back" when I heard a clip of in the Panasonic commercial. But upon hearing the song in full, it gets a thumbs up from me. Ayumi's voice has always been dramatic, sounded really old and sometimes sounds like what I can only describe as warbling. So, on "Don't look back" she's in her element. The warbling really adds to the Arabian middle-Eastern influence of the music and compliments it.

The album features 4 of your typical J-ballads, which are possibly contractually obliged to appear on the majority of J-releases. Out of the 4 ("Sunset ~Love is all~", "Ballad", "You were..." and "Meaning of love") "Ballad" is the strongest. Where as "You were..." throws in the Japanese kitchen sink, "Ballad" keeps things simple and sounds better for it. Ayumi's vocals are put into the spotlight due to the minimalism of the music. She warbles a heck of a lot, hits a couple of flat notes and sometimes sounds like she is karaoking Enka. But the song is still sweet and sweeping. I think part of why I like "Ballad" so much is that it reminds me so badly of Crystal Kay's "Kaerimachi" which I love. "Meaning of love" is okay, but it has an over arcing feel to it similar to that of "Sunset ~Love is all~", which is the better song. "Sunset ~Love is all~" in itself doesn't feel as powerful without the music video. And the song sitting in tracklist before its "Sunrise" counterpart so early on in the album makes you feel as though the song is pushing itself onto you at an un-welcomed time. Placing the song further down in the tracklist would have done the song greater justice.

Rock 'n roll circus' style is a whole lot more consistent that Next level's was. It really is a shame that Ayumi Hamasaki rushed out Next level, because the likes of "Sparkle" and "Rule" would have sounded much more at home on this album and really tied it together nicely. The interludes are rather nonsensical and feel like a cheap attempt to help conceptualize the album title, only it doesn't really work. The album could have done without them all. And unlike Next level, which had interludes so good they should have been full length songs and shamed half the full lengths on the album, Rock 'n' roll circus' interludes are completely skip-worthy. The album intro is decent. But "Montage" is pointless and "Jump!" is just stupid.

Ayumi doesn't give you a great deal more with this album that she's not given with past releases in terms of style. But what makes this album work so much better than many of her other albums is that she finally has the rock flavoured songs sounding legit and credible, instead of forced and gimmicky. And as a result, Rock 'n roll circus feels more accessible and easier to connect with than the likes of Guilty. If you're an Ayumi Hamasaki fan, you'll lap up everything this album has to offer. And if you're new to Ayumi Hamasaki, then this album acts as a solid introduction to her as an artist. For me personally, I think this is one of the few albums where Ayumi Hamasaki sounds comfortable and locked into its sound. The only other album of hers I can say the same about is I am.... Everything else for me was just too patchy.

The album title is a tad misleading, but we can forgive ol' Robot face for it, given that given the music is good.

Album highlights:
■ Microphone
■ Count down
■ Sunset ~Love is all~
■ Ballad
■ Last links ★ J's fave
■ Don't look back
■ Meaning of love


  1. Great review! I like the new 'J's Fave' feature you're starting to use now too! I do like a few of the songs released as singles (I'm playing Sexy Little Things on youtube) so I'll maybe get round to giving the album a full listen at a later date.

  2. I really don't like the album cover at all. It doesn't even look like her. But anyway the few songs I've heard I like so it's already 100% better than Next Level.

  3. umm, i've read your reviews on ayumi and i can't help but think that you are being bias and such. u see, im not a very big fan of ayumi but i do listen to her album. next level is not very good but still u should give credit to her since shes trying to spread her wings to different kinds of music. rock and roll circus, i loved it so much. and jump is not like what u said, jump is just full of emotions and energy that i feel like jumping, in a rock and roll kinda way.. seriously, u always compare ayumi and koda kumi and other people as well, whaat u should realize is that ayumi is not like them. ayumi's voice is unique and she should try many kinds of music to experiment, so that people know she did try rather than not trying. above all, i dont like your reviews on artists since u are very harsh with your words in your description. i know you do have musical knowledge but still respect the artists. peace

  4. Biased?

    I'm a Hikaru Utada fan till the day I die. Yet, I gave one of her albums 5 / 10. EXACTLY the same score I gave Ayumi Hamasaki's Next level. Near enough every Rock 'n roll circus related post I've put up has given Ayumi praise. And I'd mentioned many times I was looking forward to this new album because I liked the singles. So please tell me how exactly I'm biased?

    As for my Next level review? It's how I honestly felt about the album. Should I say an album is the best thing ever and recommend it just because it has Ayumi Hamasaki on the cover? Of course not! I go by how I feel about the music, and I felt half of it on Next level was not good. I'm not going to give an album a good review just because it tries something new neither, when I feel the end result is bad. Clearly Ayumi wasn't 100% feelin' the electro pop direction she took Next level in herself, because she ditched it spectacularly for Rock 'n roll circus with the exception of 1 song.

    I give props to Ayumi Hamasaki. I wouldn't have given an album of her's a good review and said I'd want to see her on tour if I didn't.


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